On Classics: The Timely and the Timeless
Assassins, Fences, and Bent
By Myron Meisel
I believe Jean Renoir said it takes about 25 years to know if a work of art is any good, obviating all instant criticism. (Walk through any “contemporary” art museum to confirm.) Certainly they mutate over such a length of time. Context changes, and more importantly, so do we. Watching the Mark Taper’s revival earlier this season of Arthur Miller’s The Price, which I hadn’t seen since its initial Broadway run in 1968 and its television broadcast in 1971, the play seemed very much as I remembered it, yet I related to it as a completely different person, which it reminded me I indeed was. Our life experiences transpire alongside the aging works.
Though the texts may be fixed, art, like children, tends to grow up and wander off into a separate existence. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the theater, where reinterpretation is both inescapable and essential. Some recent area revivals provide some intriguing examples to compare the interplay of memory with immediacy.
Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical, Assassins, was too trangressive for Broadway norms when first produced, and untimely enough to open first during the Kuwait War, and then to have a revival production just after 9/11. As astutely discussed in Paul Birchall’s Stage Raw review, this shoestring mounting chooses to go more dank than raucous, eschewing the carnival atmosphere (doubtless influenced by Arthur Kopit’s Indians) for a more sepulchral, otherworldly environment where the ghosts of presidential killers, successful and otherwise, mingle, alternately boosting their battered egos and taunting one another with their historic obscurity.
Though the choice of subject matter alone consigned the show to be a Sondheim outlier, it has since become an object of admiration for his cognoscenti, its application of sub-Brechtian stylings (and book author John Weidman figures strongly as a collaborator) to meditations on the drive for celebrity among the terminally unrecognized. The musical’s octet of losers seeking glory in notoriety may have been icky to contemplate when the show was written, but given the present ubiquity of desire for validation through the most fleeting of moments of evanescent scorecard recognition online, this historical pageant becomes even creepier as a harbinger of what we now realize has become the future.
Director Dan Fishbach has a coherent concept for the material to speak to a contemporary audience, and an admirably disciplined command of the often devilishly recalcitrant clashes of tone within the piece. In its ambitious scope and modest means, this Assassins exemplifies many of the finest essential qualities of (In)Equity Waiver theater (in which, not coincidentally, all the fine actors and director of Fences all fruitfully honed their craft).
The score was probably never meant to be among Sondheim’s most excellent; rather, the songs are tailored to the needs of their gleefully cracked vision of broken souls mirroring a dysfunctional nation. As ever, though, the most effective moments are those most closely aligned with Broadway historical tradition, such as the ineffably daffy comedy encounters between “Squeaky Fromme” (Claire Adams) and Sara Jane Moore (Janna Cardia), and the unalloyed vaudeville of Charles Guiteau (Jeff Alan-Lee) playing out his delusions with a preacherly pizzazz and a high-stepping showstopper just before he hangs.
It has, however, always irked me that Sondheim and Weidman, in their array of murderous misfits, deliberately chose to exclude the Puerto Rican nationalists who in 1950 on the heels of the start of an open rebellion in their homeland attempted to assassinate President Truman at Blair House, where he was living during White House renovations. Driven purely by political (and colorably noble) motivations, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola engaged the Secret Service in the most extended gun battle in its history, resulting in two deaths. Perhaps they did not fit Assassins’ s template, but the episode could have added considerable dimension to the musical, to have such representatives of committed violent action (and while Torresola was an accomplished gunman, Collazo was like many of the other Assassins compadres, haplessly inept). Perhaps Sondheim felt he had already “done” Puerto Ricans in West Side Story?
James Earl Jones and Michael Shepperd do August Wilson
The just-closed revival of August Wilson’s 1987 Fences at International City Theatre in Long Beach benefited greatly from the cumulative perspective of his subsequent entries in his ten-part Century cycle. Since Fences was only the second of his works to be widely seen, in the intervening years his range and scope of Wilson’s vision greatly expanded. For all its considerable originality and power, Fences now seems among the simplest and most focused of the corpus, more self-contained than the more intricate and extensive panoramas of the later plays.
While it might be intrinsically unfair to compare a local mounting with the original production, starring James Earl Jones as Troy, it’s also irresistible, particularly since the impressive performance of Michael A. Shepperd can bear the burden. Jones’s outsize personality was able to suggest a garbage man fully capable of genuine tragic stature. He captured the vanity of the former Negro League star, the foundation of his bitterness and rancor. So stentorian and charismatic a player had to project himself as small and emotionally stunted, not unlike Laurence Olivier did in The Entertainer.
Essentially the polar opposite as an actor, Shepperd understandably adopted a different strategy, portraying Troy as a black Willie Loman, an Everyman of large ambitions circumscribed by frustrated circumstance, an arbitrary tyrant with an acute sense of personal responsibility belied by his selfish behavior, withholding love as a means to hew tighter to his injured masculinity. It’s not flashy, and probably closer to Wilson’s conception of an ordinary black man in the repressive 1950s expressing the gamut of petty and honorable emotions. Troy’s arguments may be rationalizing self-justifications, but they also contain credible truth and an admirable sense of duty.
One always expects the best of Karole Foreman after her extraordinary series of recent roles from the Stage Raw award-winning ensemble of Wedding Band (also directed by Gregg T. Daniel) to a memorable pair of appearances with the Long Beach Opera. Here she handled her insightful speeches as Troy’s wife Rose with both grace and command. And it is a great compliment to Theo Perkins as elder son Lyons that he always seems to be emerging from another ongoing unseen drama about which we are eternally curious whenever he appears. (Some intrepid playwright might pick up that challenge.)
Gabriel (Matt Orduña), Troy’s half-brother mentally incapacitated by his war wounds, is generally less persuasively integrated than Wilson’s later holy fools, yet in the big final scene, one of the playwright’s most brilliant denouements, all the loose ends of the characters are inextricably bound together in their respective fates, and only Gabriel, who cannot blow his horn, can express all the inchoate dissatisfaction and innate nobility of everyone onstage.
Bent: When Old News Is Relevant, But Less Pertinent to Today’s Audiences
Whereas Fences and Assassins seem to have accumulated new patinas of fresh meaning over the long haul, Martin Sherman’s Bent, performed earlier this year at the Mark Taper Forum, suffered from a certain loss of immediacy, perhaps from a plethora of current topicality. In 1979, it was unshakably groundbreaking and consciousness-raising, of immediate obvious importance in the theatrical literature.
That power can still be felt, though now at some distance, as the central conceit of gays in an early concentration camp after the mass assassinations of Roehm’s SA has become more of a historical chestnut, a protest piece that remains relevant but less pertinent to today’s audiences. As a late relic of the period just before the Plague, its anger and determination to prevail against encroaching hopelessness added to its indispensibility for a considerable time.
Still, we now live in a different world, to some degree (despite a long road yet to travel on issues of discrimination), and at this juncture, Bent must stand or fall on its qualities of timelessness rather than timeliness.
As evidenced at the Taper, it remains a strong and effective play, not entirely persuasive as existential meditation, though still theatrically vivid. One cannot help imagine that even as recently as five years ago, its potency might have still been more immediate and less cerebral than it currently appears.
Assassins is currently being performed at Pico Playhouse, 10508 Pico Blvd, W.L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept 27. (310) 204-4440, http://picoplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hrs., 15 minutes with intermission